Daphne Butler is one of Kenya’s best-kept secrets. Her work has been celebrated in several countries around the world. Vivid colour, startling realism and searing light are hallmarks of her abundant paintings. Her style mimics the countless colours that the human eye sees. Such powerful detail tricks us into ‘feeling the heat, warmth and light of the African sun’.
Daphne’s circumstances conspired to give her an unforgettable childhood in the bush. This imbues her paintings with a depth that can only come from personal experience. A descendant of one of Rembrandt’s artistic contemporaries, Daphne’s father hailed from cold, dark Norway. Her mother, who was also artistic, came from sunny Mediterranean Greece. Daphne was born in Tanzania at the foot of snow-capped Kilimanjaro on a utopian farm, surrounded by teeming wildlife. Later, the family moved to Zimbabwe, where her father led safari expeditions.
In 1978, after completing her Fine Arts degree in South Africa, Daphne moved to Kenya. Here she worked in advertising as a graphic designer and illustrator. Eventually she focused on painting the subjects dear to her heart – people and wildlife. Her work chronicles the many positive aspects of African life.
Daphne’s portraits take on an ethnographic slant: she deftly captures the beauty of our rapidly assimilating indigenous cultures. Her subjects are timeless: “People and animals will always be there. I try to portray the elements of the real world that will never change.” Here, she tells msafiri about her journey as a White African, her conservation efforts, her passion for helping others, and how a brush with China changed her destiny.
Q & A DAPHNE BUTLER
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
I wouldn’t advise anyone to pursue art as a career! It is very, very hard. You’ve got to be prepared for the pain and the struggle that goes with it – like the little mermaid who sacrificed everything for love. Looking back I wouldn’t have done anything else. But it was a long hard road to get to this point.
When did your love for wildlife begin?
It goes back to my childhood on our farm in Tanzania. We lived on the edge of the Ngurdoto Crater and Arusha game reserve. Buffaloes used to surround our house at night. So did hyenas, rhinos and all kinds of wildlife. I learned that every animal has its characteristics. If you respect them for that, they won’t go out of their way to kill you. I didn’t like to see killing of any sort of animals. I don’t even like to see that in documentaries. I do have a romanticised view – I believe that in the future, animals and humans will be one day at peace.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by the natural world, the animals, light and colour. What challenges me is trying to capture or portray that. I love playing with colour to include what perhaps another eye has not seen. A wildlife painting is much more than a photograph because you are not just replicating what you saw. You remember how you felt at that scene, and you convey those emotions in your piece. Also, I try to live my life with a childlike sense of wonder – to marvel at the beauty around; at every bee and butterfly. I feel sorrow at man’s despoiling of nature so I try to counter that in my paintings.
Your work has featured in several exhibitions and sold on four continents over the years. How do you view fame and success?
I think being a decent human being is more important than being famous or wealthy. Personally, I try to keep my life simple. My happiness comes from knowing my purpose in life and from trying to help others. I can’t change the world but my modest philosophy is that if I can help someone I will. Whatever my fingers touch I can do something. I am very grateful to be able to do what I love for a living. I find the process of painting extremely satisfying. Everything about it – the feel of paint on my brush, the way the strokes progressively define the emerging outline… I feel successful each time I achieve that final image.
What do you do when you are not painting?
I paint three days a week and do volunteer work the other days. For the past 15 years my focus has been on the local Chinese community, where I try to help individuals improve the quality of their life. I also spend a lot of time studying Chinese. I understand about 85 per cent of the language – especially abstract terms related to spirituality. I speak about 30 per cent and I’ve enjoyed visiting the country on a number of occasions.
How has your association with the Chinese in Kenya impacted on your art career?
Contrary to the stereotype about poaching, I have learned that several Chinese are very active in conservation. I have been privileged to meet such honourable ones, and I do what I can to educate people in this area. I love the Chinese because many of them are conscious of a deeper purpose beyond wealth and fame. They are searching to add meaning to their lives.
As for my art, one gentleman visited Kenya and was enchanted by our wildlife. Later he sent a representative to purchase mementos. She bought two of my paintings. For the past few years he has regularly commissioned me to produce wildlife studies. I know my client is very pained by poaching and has pledged to educate his peers about ivory.
Many of your paintings include cats, wild and domestic. Why the feline fascination?
I am a conservationist of sorts. Not by choice! Somehow I’ve ended up adopting 12 cats. They are usually on death’s door when I find them: starved, beaten, or seriously wounded. I have found homes for another 36 cats I rescued. The ones I kept were too nervous, too shy, traumatised or blind.
How do you define mastery?
I think the Greatest Artist is the Creator. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I try to showcase the grandeur of nature. I haven’t mastered anything, by a long shot. I see improvement when I look at my pieces from five years ago. But there are failures along the way and I learn from them. My favourite college instructor, Helmut Starcke, emphasised the need to produce meaningful art – you must keep your ego in check otherwise you will not grow. I learn a lot from observing other artists. I really admire the late Simon Combes’ wildlife paintings. Art is just like any other discipline – building on other peoples’ experiences you can skip the unnecessary steps along the way.